Have you been on a houseboat trip?
We are investigating concerns that unregulated expansion of houseboat tourism in the Kerala backwaters might be impacting negatively on the environment, and as part of that, we need to better understand the tourist experience. We want to hear urgently from anyone who has been recently to Kerala in India, especially if you have taken a trip on one of the houseboats. Here’s why.
Tourism Concern has been working with partner organisations in southern India ever since the tsunami of 2004. Communities who had been devastated then faced a range of problems brought about by aggressive tourism developers – exploiting their vulnerability, forcing them off their land and threatening their livelihoods.
We managed a large DFID-funded project: Empowering Coastal Communities for Effective Tourism Policy Engagement, which ran from 2009 to 2012, working closely with some of these communities. Although challenging at times, the project was particularly effective in the Alleppey region of Kerala where, working with our local partners, we developed a comprehensive network for in-depth engagement with grassroots level groups, particularly women.
The network fed back information via a survey of nearly 1000 households, answering a range of questions to assess awareness of tourism issues, plans for tourism development, their rights and means of asserting them, whether they benefit from tourism etc, as well as negative impacts of tourism. One clear outcome was an overwhelming concern that houseboat tourism, while providing clear economic benefits to local people, was also creating a number of environmental and social problems. A range of issues have also been raised by tourists returning from such trips, expressing concern that without improvement in the way that boats are operated, backwaters tourism is becoming increasingly unsustainable.
As you may know, local people use the backwaters of Alleppey for cooking, drinking and washing – as well as for transportation, fishing and agriculture. The backwaters of Alleppey are also increasingly popular with tourists, who hire thatched houseboats to explore the tranquil palm-fringed waters and picturesque villages. The concern is that unregulated tourism expansion threatens to damage these rural communities and their environment, as well as undermining the economic benefits the industry brings to local people.
We are currently working with local organisations and tourism stakeholders in Alleppey to develop a meaningful code of practice for houseboat operators, as a way to encourage greater sustainability. We would like to know about your experiences in Alleppey in order to contribute to this process. Equally we are also interested in hearing from local organisations that understand the area – and any UK tour operators that offer tours on the houseboats.